Sacred Encounters: Missionary Impulse to Native America
Sacred Encounters: Missionary Impulse to Native America
Call to Mission. The missions established among Native Americans were sites of sacred encounters in the West. The experience of contact varied from one encounter to the next, not only because of the differences between the missionaries but also because the native peoples whom they engaged were embroiled in their own dynamic histories. By 1820 more than a dozen organizations around the country sponsored missionary work, but a few dominated the scene. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), founded in 1810, was primarily supported by Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and Congregationalist churches. As an interdenominational coalition, this group typified the irenic spirit of the early-nineteenth-century reform movements. In 1814 the Baptists entered the foreign mission field under the authority of their denomination’s Triennial Convention. Two years later conservative Presbyterian and Reformed leaders formed the United Foreign Missionary Society, but the group later merged with the ABCFM. That the work was dubbed a “foreign” mission reflected the evangelicals’ ultimate goal of spreading Christianity throughout the world. However, American religious leaders were sensitive to charges from their English counterparts that they had abandoned indigenous peoples “for the distant heathen in India.” In 1805 the Reverend Edward Griffin delivered a widely reprinted sermon before the Presbyterian General Assembly that set the tone for mission work among the American Indians: “We are living in prosperity on the very lands from which the wretched pagans have been ejected; from the recesses of whose wilderness a moving cry is heard, ‘When it is well with you, think of [the] poor Indians.’” Twenty-four years later the Baptist mission board again called for “a sense of the obligations which we are under to this injured people, whose home and country we possess, [to] redress the wrongs we have com
For forty years from 1837, Presbyterian missionaries Stephen Return Riggs and his wife, Mary, labored among the Wahpetons, a band of the Santee Lakotas (Sioux) in Minnesota. At first intent on studying the Lakota language as a means to evangelism, Riggs eventually came to see in the use of the native tongue an enlargement of the gospel rather than its degradation. With the help of several influential Indians who saw the benefits of communication, the mission published a Lakota grammar and dictionary in 1852 and later in the decade a Lakota hymnbook and selections from the New Testament. Over the years a core of interested Wahpetons kept up the missionaries’ hopes for widespread conversions despite indifference and opposition from many others. The plight and the struggle of the native Christian was poignantly illustrated by Simon Anawangmane, the first full-blooded Lakota man to declare himself a Christian. When he decided to “renounce all for Christ,” as Mary wrote in her diary in 1841, he put on “white man’s clothing” and began to plant a field of corn and potatoes. He severed connections with the past by returning his war club, spear, pipe, and medicine bag to the man who made them. For this behavior he was ridiculed as “the man who has made himself a woman,” but because he had been a respected warrior in his youth, he suffered none of the vandalism that often expressed Lakota disapproval. After a few years Simon developed a passion for drink, returned to native dress, and tried to obtain horses by trading in liquor. That life, however, brought him no peace either. In 1847 he reconsecrated himself to the church, was eventually reinstated, and became a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church and a licensed exhorter. In the meantime, by about 1850, the constancy of the Riggs’ presence among the Wahpetons made their lifestyle seem an appealing alternative, especially among the rising generation. A group of young people removed themselves from the village, built cabins, changed their style of clothing, and adopted agriculture. As a result, when the Eastern Lakotas ceded most of their lands and moved to a reservation, Stephen Riggs established in 1854 a separate community, Hazelwood, for Christian Indians. Their distinctive identity continued to develop, and in 1857 eighteen Wahpetons declared themselves a separate band and sought the recognition of the Indian agent, which was necessary in order to receive a portion of the government annuity. The group produced a constitution for their new Hazelwood Republic that illustrated how closely Christianization and civilization had become linked in their perception. “We consider that we are in vastly different circumstances from those in which we were before the Word of the Great Spirit was brought into the country…. We hope to make progress and teach our brethren progress…. It has been for the purpose of instructing according to our ability our own relations and the whole Dakota people in regard to dress and manners, and indeed in regard to every thing that pertains to their well-being in this present life, and in the life to come, that we have formed ourselves into a government.” The Hazelwood Republic elected a president, asked for private allotments of land, and pledged obedience to the U.S. government. Riggs worked for several years to obtain citizenship for nine of the Hazelwood band, given a provision in the state constitution whereby Indians could become citizens if they demonstrated progress in civilization. Finally, a judge ruled in 1861 that being literate in the Lakota language did not constitute “civilized” progress. Only English competency met that standard, and thus only one Hazelwood member qualified. This episode tragically symbolized the dilemma of Christian Indians, who were still not acceptable despite their cropped hair, their non-Indian dress, and their professed faith. Yet as events continued to favor the Anglo-American majority, the non-Christian Lakotas confronted the possibility that a superior power backed their enemies. In 1862 Little Crow led the Santees in an uprising against surrounding settlements and trading posts. The army rounded up three hundred Lakotas, including Christians who now faced guilt by association, and sentenced all to be hanged. In the largest mass execution in United States history, thirty-eight Santee Sioux were hanged at one time on 26 December 1862. The illustration of greater “wakan” was not lost on the remaining imprisoned warriors. At the request of the Lakotas themselves, missionaries, including Riggs, conducted Bible study sessions and held mass baptisms over the three years of the Indians’ incarceration. President Abraham Lincoln eventually reviewed the proceedings and commuted the sentences of most of the condemned.
Sources Robert Berkhofer Jr., Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787-1862 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965);
Stephen Return Riggs, Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1969).
mitted.” Guilt over the fate of the Indians, and the evangelical’s responsibility to uplift the “sons of the forest” and thereby save them from extinction, were recurring themes of the missionary impulse in its early history.
Government Policy. The federal government’s position toward the missionary endeavor remained fairly consistent until Andrew Jackson’s presidency. As Henry Knox, secretary of war under George Washington, had stated, the most effective and least expensive way to handle the Indian problem along the Western frontier was to turn the natives into citizens, a task for which “missionaries of excellent character” seemed admirably suited. After the War of 1812 Anglo-American settlers began to fill the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, which was still occupied by more than 120,000 Native Americans. The civilizing mission was no longer an academic exercise but was expounded as one solution to an urgent problem; the other options were removal of the Indians beyond the Mississippi or their extermination. In 1819 Congress instituted a permanent civilization fund with an annual appropriation of $10,000 to be distributed among the societies that were operating Indian schools. The grants provided more of a psychological than financial boost to the missionary program. In 1825, for example, the various societies received $13,600 from the government, $11,750 from Indian annuities, and $177,000 from private contributions (inkind and cash). Even so, the government imprimatur was an important stimulus because it convinced the evangelical leadership that the nation was indeed committed to a Christian destiny. From the Indian side of the fence, the partnership between church and state, however loose, ultimately undermined the reform character of the missionary societies and made them agents of the government rather than of God.
Western Removal. From the first, the removal of native peoples from the path of white expansion forced missionaries to choose between conflicting loyalties. Displacing the Indians by purchasing their title and by outright coercion may have seemed a prudent course to politicians, but it undercut the civilizing mission by eliminating at a stroke all progress made as well as hardwon trust. The Wyandots of Ohio provided an early example of the issues that removal raised. Despite treaty guarantees, the Wyandots had been continuously pushed westward since the late eighteenth century. In the mid 1820s federal officials were again promising that if the tribe would submit to relocation one more time, that site would be a permanent home. The Wyandots sent a letter to the War Department declaring that they were “making progress in religion, and in the cultivation of their lands.” Methodist missionary James Finley wrote that the Wyandots should be left undisturbed, given that they had kept faith with the government and had received its pledge that they would never again be moved. “Little doubt can be entertained but, in a short time, these people will be well prepared to be admitted as citizens of the state of Ohio, and to remove them just at this time, contrary to their wishes, would be … a most cruel act. It would be undoing what has been done, and throw them again into a savage state.” Finley faced a powerful opponent in Baptist Isaac McCoy. This influential missionary argued that, to protect the Indians from pernicious white influence, the native peoples should be relocated and isolated on a large grant of land that would be theirs “in perpetuity.” McCoy’s position became a useful rationalization for a policy of removal as in the Indians’ “best interests.” Finley, meanwhile, was transferred by the Methodist conference from Indian work shortly after this episode.
The Missionaries. Although the denominations and societies offered guidelines for their volunteers in the field, the missionaries brought to the task their distinct personalities, abilities, sentiments, and beliefs. Missionaries were chosen on the basis of availability rather than aptitude, and screening was minimal, generally requiring the recommendation of the person’s minister or church elder as to character, piety, and commitment. A retired sailor who applied to the Methodists listed the fact that he had “given chase to pirates” as part of his qualifications for mission work. The missionary societies preferred married couples, not only to prevent moral mischief but also to serve as examples to the natives of God’s intentions for the human family. Men and women who were determined to follow the calling of their hearts sometimes underwent whirlwind courtships in order to marry a missionary partner. The individuals drawn to the vocation were undoubtedly motivated by both selfish and selfless reasons and by idealistic and practical considerations. Regardless, their common perception of sacrificing for compassion’s sake, of having an unshirkable obligation to heed the Great Commission, is undeniable. Indeed, given the repeated declarations of officials and unsympathetic writers that the Indians were a doomed race, the missionaries often regarded themselves as the last line of defense. This gave their crusade an urgency that at times made them blind to the lives and needs of the people to whom they were assigned.
Civilized or Christianized? Congress’ creation of the civilization fund intensified a long-running debate as to whether the Indians should first be civilized or Christianized. Would giving them the Bible or offering them the plow best achieve the goal of uplift? Although much ink was spilled over this question, in practice it was difficult to separate the two, especially when the object was the same. As the United Foreign Missionary Society declared in 1823, by conveying
the benefits of civilization and the blessings of Christianity” to the Indians, the day may come “when the savage shall be converted into the citizen; when the hunter shall be transformed into the mechanic; … when throughout the vast range of country from the Mississippi to the Pacific, the red man and the white man shall everywhere be found, mingling in the same benevolent and friendly feelings, fellow citizen of the same civil and religious community, and fellow-heirs to a glorious inheritance in the kingdom of Immanuel.
In 1824 Congress considered repealing the civilization fund, but the house committee recommended its continuance. They were influenced especially by the report of Jedediah Morse, a New England Congregational minister and renowned geographer. Touring Western Indian villages and mission sites, Morse praised the combination of Christian education with agricultural instruction and concluded that evangelizing alone would not reform the “sons of the forest.”
Image of the Indian. Although the missionaries as a group carried cultural baggage with them into the West, mainstream culture was itself in flux in the antebellum period, especially before the 1840s. There were, however, certain philosophical and theological preconceptions that affected the way the missionaries approached their calling. Both white and Indian peoples had to account for one another in their cosmology. To Christians the most important biblical truth relative to the Indians was that all races originated in a single creative act by God. Monogenesis meant that Indians were human beings like any other, possessing an immortal soul and capable of receiving salvation. Enlightenment thought bolstered this understanding in its assertion of universal natural laws and the essential oneness of human nature. The evangelical persuasion emerging from the Second Great Awakening had taken an Arminian direction, declaring that redemption was offered to everyone, not simply the elect. Even among Calvinists the door remained open, for in God’s plan all human beings were capable of regeneration, even if only a few were chosen. The operative theology of the early nineteenth century was thus based on the essential equality of humanity in the sight of God. The missionaries might have displayed extreme intolerance or suffocating ethnocentrism, but had they denied a belief in the redemptive potential of the Indian, the basis for their own salvation would have been thrown into question. Given these premises, Euro-Americans typically explained differences between societies as stages in human progress, with each society on the same path but at distinct points in development. To the evangelicals the values and ideals of the United States represented an advance in human history, though they believed the nation’s aspirations were more praiseworthy than its reality. People caught on a lower rung of the ladder of progress only needed knowledge to move up because environment rather than biology was the key. As Isaac McCoy declared in 1841: “If the habits are formed by circumstances surrounding [the Indian], as they are formed by those which surround us, then the point can be established that a change in circumstances would be followed by a change of habits. Let this change be favorable to civilization and religion.” “Culture” as a web of traditions and institutions unique to a particular group of people was not a concept recognized until the twentieth century. Consequently, the missionaries’ attitudes toward Indian were informed by the perception that, given proper education, Indians could become like whites. Although such logic seems racist today, it was for antebellum evangelicals the only way of including the Indians in the human family—and the alternative (in both theological and practical terms) seemed too terrible to contemplate. If there had been no conversions, or no adoption of the “civilized” ways of the whites, then the missionaries might have faced a critical challenge to their perception of the Indians’ temporary differentness. As it was, the occasional success confirmed that God would gather the Indians one by one, just as He had called the missionaries in their individual conversions.
Mission Strategy. As the historian Robert Berkhofer has observed, all mission activities attended in varying degrees to three goals: piety, learning, and industry. The general strategy was to obtain a group’s permission to establish a mission on or near their settlement, then to begin a school, hold church services, and start agricultural production. Meanwhile the missionaries would enlist the Indians in the tasks of building and farming as the means of teaching them. Because of the emphasis on reforming customs or habits, missionaries frequently spoke of the rising generation as the salvation of the Indian, but their ability to override parental influence on Indian children was limited until boarding schools became federal policy after the Civil War. Exactly what transpired between the missionaries and the Indians in worship can only be imagined, but unless there was some form of communication, either by translators or by the missionaries learning native tongues, the encounters must have had a farcical quality. Some Protestant leaders had opposed perpetuating the “dying Indian tongues,” until Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary proved its usefulness to the missionary endeavor. Even so, the missionary corps overall lacked the level of competency required for translation and bilingual comprehension. Considering the problems with language, the missionaries discovered that the easiest approach to religious instruction was through behavior: defining sin as alcohol consumption, idleness, warfare, and marital infidelity. Although this strategy paralleled the evangelical effort to make Euro-American society more godly, the attack on certain traditional aspects of native life could serve to weaken tribal cohesion, especially for a group that was already in crisis. The missionaries soon realized that persuading Indians to adopt white clothing was an extremely important symbolic step. As Stephen Riggs, missionary to the Eastern Lakotas, observed in the 1850s, “It is true that a change of dress does not change their hearts, but in their estimation it does change their relations to the Dakota religion and customs.” Yet if missionaries became too preoccupied with externals, more-elusive spiritual goals could suffer—until conversion became a matter of form rather than substance.
The Jesuits. The involvement of the Jesuits in Western mission work provided a spur to Protestant efforts as well as a contrast for the native peoples. Known as the Black Robes to the Indians, the Jesuits differed from Protestant missionaries in ways that seemed to confer advantages. First, because they came from a variety of nationalities, they appeared less like agents of the U.S. government. The Jesuits’ perspective with regard to other races tended to embrace an element of cultural relativism, which meant that they were generally more open to similarities between the sacred worlds of Catholics and Indians. In theological terms the Jesuits adopted an incarnational stance that considered all human good as potentially Christian. Catholicism, with its sacramental focus, also appealed to Indian groups whose religion was based on ceremony and ritual. Unlike the Protestant missionaries, who arrived with wives and children and were quickly absorbed in the concerns of settlement, the Jesuits came as single men. This gave them flexibility and substantiated their claim that they were solely devoted to the Indians’ welfare—perhaps offsetting the Indians’ bewilderment at priestly celibacy. Although the Jesuits managed to dot the Northwest with mission stations, the duration of their efforts was no more remarkable than that of the Protestants before the Civil War.
Chastened Expectations. By the 1840s the missionary impulse, along with other reforming projects, was becoming more chastened in its expectations and more sensitive to internal disagreements. The Removal Crisis in the Southeast, which culminated in the late 1830s, seemed to strike a blow at the earlier hopes for a harmonious society and the potential for an “awakened” nation. As expansion pushed forward to the Pacific Coast, the West became a home (not foreign) mission field, catering to the needs of the settlers. Perhaps a sobering recognition of their own limits helped turn missionary attention increasingly overseas: keeping their eyes fixed on the high standard of Christianizing the world made it easier to ignore the seemingly insoluble problems on their own continent. When a newspaperman coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” during the Mexican War, it added another element to the religious controversies of the antebellum age, especially in regard to the missionary drive. Consider the statement of Indian Commissioner Luke Lea in 1853, not atypical for the times: “When civilization and barbarism are brought in such relation that they cannot coexist together, it is right that the superiority of the former should be asserted and the latter compelled to give way. It is, therefore, no matter of regret or reproach that so large a portion of our territory has been wrested from its aboriginal inhabitants and made the happy abode of an enlightened and Christian people.” Such an official posture caused conflict for evangelicals, as is evident in the experience of two Methodist missionaries who journeyed to the Northwest in the 1850s. The pair came to completely opposite conclusions about the efficacy of their work among indigenous peoples. The Blaines, in Puget Sound, took an immediate dislike to the natives. “The Indians are at best but a poor degraded race, far inferior to even the lowest of those among us…. However, they are fast passing away and will soon disappear.” Kate Blaine wrote home: “You talk about the stupidity and awkwardness of the Irish. You ought to have do with our Indians and then you would know what these words mean.” In glaring contrast, John Beeson took his family to the Rogue River valley of Oregon. He became an advocate for the Indian cause although he found few allies among the local Methodist societies. The fault for the Indians’ rejection of Christianity, he believed, lay with the missionaries, who offered a religion that “insult[ed] their common sense, by presenting itself with Whisky and Creeds in one hand, and Bibles and Bowie-knives in the other.” Beeson’s faith in the Indians’ capacity arose from his religious convictions: “It is true that their creed is not written in a book…. But they have, on their own mountains and valleys, the same Presence that dwelt with Moses…. [With] the babbling brook, the sighing zepher, and singing birds … they unite, in adoration of the Great Spirit, whose informing presence animates the whole and in whom the Indian, as well as the Christian, lives, moves, and has his being.”
Antebellum Changes. By 1860 the ABCFM, a leader in the evangelization of the Indians, had sent out 472 men and women to Indians across the continent, including the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Osages, Ojibwas, Creeks, Pawnees, Nez Perces, Flatheads, Lakotas, Abenakis, and groups in Ohio and Michigan. Often oblivious and unprepared, these stalwart individuals marched out into the unknown, at great risk and with little expectation of worldly reward, to bring the gospel to the natives. The task required more time, effort, and skill than many had anticipated; evangelical optimism proved to be an inadequate qualification. Without quick success, the entire missionary enterprise faltered, casting doubt on the ability of the godly to transform even a little corner of the world. Given this opening of diminished hopes, a burgeoning mood of romantic nationalism began to change the tone of American society in the two decades before the Civil War. Woven into this new intellectual tapestry was a greater willingness to define what it meant to be an American in terms of racial otherness. Instead of perceiving the white-Indian relationship as “us” and “not-yet-us,” the lines became drawn between “us” and “them.” Nineteenth-century scientists had already begun to explore the idea of polygenesis, or separate origins for the races, which would make racial differences ineradicable and encourage a hierarchical ranking. This postulate remained a minority opinion among Protestants until late in the century, but new science was trickling into mass consciousness. Discrimination against the Irish and other races deemed inferior by Anglo-Americans, justification of African slavery, and carte blanche for action against the so-called doomed Indians—such furies were the heralds of another age, another vision for the nation born in the retreat of the evangelical-Enlightenment ethos.
R. Pierce Beaver, Church, State, and the American Indians: Two and a Half Centuries of Partnership in Missions between Protestant Churches and Government (St. Louis: Concordia, 1966);
Robert Berkhofer Jr., Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787-1862 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965);
Michael Coleman, Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837-1893 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985);
Clifton J. Phillips, Protestant America and the Pagan World: The First Half Century of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810-1860 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969).